Beth Hamedrash Hagodol-Beth Jacob Congregation is the oldest Orthodox congregation in Western Pennsylvania. It was founded around 1870 by members of Tree of Life Congregation who split following disputes over what they saw as liberalizing religious practices. The original eight members were all recent immigrants from Lithuania: Joseph Altman, Simon Jacobs, Jacob Levy, Isaac Novinsky, David Oppenheim, Herman, Rosenblum, Abraham Skirboll, and Jacob Solomon. They adopted Minhag Ashkenaz as their mode of prayer, rented meeting space at Third and Liberty avenues, and hired Rabbi Morris Markowitz as their first spiritual leader.Feldman, Jacob. “The Jewish Experience in Western Pennsylvania,” Pittsburgh: Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania, 1986, p71 (catalog record). They received a charter in August 1873 using the name B’nai Israel Congregation. The charter members were Morris Rosenthal, Simon Jacob, Haiman Rosenbloom, J. Solomon, J. Altman, Louis Sandusky, Jacob Birnstein, I. Novinsky, Simon Miller, Max Miller, B. Bernstein, and Chas Levy.B’nai Israel Congregation charter, 1873, Allegheny County Charter Book, Vol. 4, Pages 433-437 (online). The congregation received a new charter in March 1893 under the name Beth Hamedrish Hagodal. The charter members were David Avner, Morris Rosenthal, Jacob Bernstein, Jacob Solomon, Moses Margolis, Simon Miller, Aaron G. Rosenthal, Mendal Novinsky, Barnett Davis, and Myer Rosenthal.Beth Hamedrish Hagodal charter, 1893, Allegheny County Charter Book, Vol. 20, Pages 21-23 (online). The congregation later modernized the spelling of its name to Beth Hamedrash Hagodol.
Beth Hamedrash Hagodol occupied at least five buildings during its first decade, moving often to accommodate growth. The congregation moved into its first permanent synagogue in 1880, when it purchased and renovated a former Presbyterian church on Grant and Third streets in downtown Pittsburgh.“B’nai Israel. Dedication of Synagogue,” Pittsburgh Times, Aug. 30, 1880 (online). The congregation remained downtown until 1892, when it dedicated a new synagogue on Washington Street in the lower Hill District. The congregation was informally known as the “Washington Street shul” for many years. The Washington Street synagogue was damaged in a fire in the early 1960s, and the congregation subsequently sold the property to the Urban Redevelopment Authority as part of urban renewal activities in the lower Hill District. Beth Hamedrash Hagodol dedicated a new synagogue on Colwell Street in 1965 (Liff and Justh, architects), reusing some of the salvaged architectural elements of the earlier building, most notably its grand Torah ark. The Colwell Street synagogue was again acquired in the mid-2000s, this time as part of construction of the new Pittsburgh Penguins hockey arena. Beth Hamedrash Hagodol purchased a former blood bank on Fifth Avenue and renovated the building into a synagogue in 2010 (Harry Levine, architect), again salvaging architectural elements from its earlier synagogues, including the ark and pews from the Washington Street synagogue and the stained glass windows from the Colwell Street synagogue.
|Beth Hamedrash Hagadol (as B'nai Israel)||Liberty Ave. and Third Ave.||1869-1870||private residence|
|Beth Hamedrash Hagadol (as B'nai Israel)||Second Ave.||1870||Fenian Hall, second floor|
|Beth Hamedrash Hagadol (as B'nai Israel)||unknown||1870||grocery store|
|Beth Hamedrash Hagadol (as B'nai Israel)||Third Ave. and Market St.||c1870-c1876||Gusky Building auditorium|
|Beth Hamedrash Hagadol (as B'nai Israel)||78 Fourth Ave.||c1876-c1879||Robinson Brothers Savings and Loan|
|Beth Hamedrash Hagadol||12 Wylie Ave.||c1879||Kelly's Hall|
|Beth Hamedrash Hagadol (as B'nai Israel)||Grant and Third Avenue||1880-1892||synagogue|
|Beth Hamedrash Hagadol||137 Washington St.||1892-1965||synagogue|
|Beth Hamedrash Hagadol||1229 Fifth Ave.||1960-1962||Caplan's Restaurant|
|Beth Hamedrash Hagadol-Beth Jacob||1230 Colwell St.||1965-2008||synagogue|
|Beth Hamedrash Hagadol-Beth Jacob||709 Forbes Ave.||2008-2010||Clement Hall|
|Beth Hamedrash Hagadol-Beth Jacob||810 Fifth Ave.||2010-present||synagogue|
Beth Hamedrash Hagodol was for a time the preferred synagogue for Jewish immigrants arriving in Pittsburgh from Lithuania, but as the Lithuanian population grew, the congregation faced internal dissention. A contingent with roots in the Lithuanian province of Suwalk broke away in 1880 to form Beth Jacob Congregation. The two congregations remained distinct until 1964, when they re-united as Beth Hamedrash Hagodol-Beth Jacob Congregation. Even with the rise of other Lithuanian congregations over the subsequent years, Beth Hamedrash Hagodol remained a leading and central institution within the Orthodox community. It attracted membership not only from the Hill District but also from small towns and enclaves throughout Allegheny County, especially those with only one or two Jewish families and no communal institutions. Out-of-town members often joined to gain privileges at the large Beth Hamedrash Hagodol Cemetery in McKees Rocks, Pa.
The first “reader” of Beth Hamedrash Hagodol was “Mr. Rosenblum.” The first spiritual leaders were Rev. Brodi, Rev. D. M. Levi, and Rabbi Moshe Aron Markovitz, who was installed between 1878 and 1880 and left for California around 1888. Rabbi Moshe Shimon Sivitz came to Pittsburgh from Kovno province in Lithuania in 1888 and was installed as the spiritual leader of Beth Hamedrash Hagodol. The congregation also gave him the nominal title “Chief Rabbi of Western Pennsylvania.” The young rabbi faced some opposition within the congregation and soon left to join the new Shaare Torah Congregation. He rejoined Beth Hamedrash Hagodol sporadically over the following few years but eventually made a definitive split. Rabbi Aaron Mordechai Ashinsky was installed in 1901. Aside from two brief efforts to leave Pittsburgh in the 1920s, he remained affiliated with the congregation until his death in 1954, although day-to-day responsibilities were increasingly given to Rabbi Joseph L. Kaplan. Kaplan joined Beth Hamedrash Hagodol in the 1910s and remained until his death in 1952. Rev. David Rubb led the congregation from the mid-1950s until his death in 1982. He had come to the congregation from Europe, where he had survived the Nazi concentration camps. He was described as a gabbai (sexton) but performed many of the responsibilities of a rabbi. Rabbi Stanley Savage was hired in 1986 and remained with the congregation into the 21st century and its move to Fifth Avenue. The congregation provided living accommodations for Rev. Rubb and later for Rabbi Savage at its Colwell Street and Fifth Avenue synagogues.
|↑1||Feldman, Jacob. “The Jewish Experience in Western Pennsylvania,” Pittsburgh: Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania, 1986, p71 (catalog record).|
|↑2||B’nai Israel Congregation charter, 1873, Allegheny County Charter Book, Vol. 4, Pages 433-437 (online).|
|↑3||Beth Hamedrish Hagodal charter, 1893, Allegheny County Charter Book, Vol. 20, Pages 21-23 (online).|
|↑4||“B’nai Israel. Dedication of Synagogue,” Pittsburgh Times, Aug. 30, 1880 (online).|